Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Interactive Student Notebooks... The 4-1-1

So, when I first made the switch from using a traditional notebook to an interactive one, NO ONE was writing much about them on the internets. I knew what they were because of our social studies program, but Google offered up little by way of support for developing one for ELA (it was LAL at the time, but since then we've shaken up the can of alphabet soup and have made the switch to ELA!).

Anyway, my fearless ELA teaching compadre, was willing to take the jump with me into this crazy world of scissors and glue and paper folding, and since that day, we've never looked back!

Nowadays, infinity teachers use ISNs in ELA and blog/tweet/pin about it, so the resources are pretty much everywhere. I debated even writing this post because there is so much out there, but it's been a slow week and I got nothin' else, so here it goes!!

In my class, our ISNs function almost like a kid-created textbook in that we will go back and reference pages in it ALL THE TIME! For that reason, on the first day of school, we number every, single page in our composition books (yes, ALWAYS use a composition book! Hard-backed, 200 pages... Spirals will make you lose your ever-loving mind by Thanksgiving... Trust me on this piece of advice... You're welcome!)... prepare for some whining! The kids hate this part!! But, it really is essential.

We also keep a meticulous table of contents to make referencing easy as we move throughout the year (the table of contents is actually the first five page of the notebook... so the very first lesson doesn't begin until page 6). Stay on top of this. If the kids can't easily reference the information in the book, then all this hard work is for naught! One way to stay on top of this is to keep a notebook right along with your students so if they are absent, they can visit your "While You Were Out" board to get the notes they missed and then use your book to help them catch up.

Now, what you fill your notebook with depends on your curriculum. ISNs are not a curriculum in and of themselves... they are merely a supplement to what you are already teaching. For me, the content of my notebook is determined by my reading series, Holt Literature. The skills I teach and the order in which I teach them come from the scope and sequence my district uses when teaching from Holt.

I don't necessarily have a solid format that I use when putting material into the book. Additionally, I rarely produce a notebook that looks exactly the same as the book from the year before. I am always looking for new and different approaches to the skills. I've been liking this, as well as my own stuff:

But my basic approach is as follows:
  • I teach eight units in ELA. Each unit teaches a couple literary elements (although one unit teaches literary devices and one unit is nonfiction/argument writing).
  • I have a page of notes for each skill that goes into the notebooks. I used to try to have the students copy these notes on their own from the board, but it was a disaster!! So, I created notes pages that have all the info they need to know and together we highlight or add details to them together.

  •  After we glue in the notes and read through/highlight them together, we read a short story together. I call this story our "touchstone" text because I will reference it again and again throughout the unit. Luckily, my lit series provides us with this text, but if your doesn't, any meaty, short story will work. (My fav to use is "All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury. The story can easily be found through Google, all the literary elements and devices are there and easy to identify, and it's a good enough story that the kids won't mind referencing it again and again.)
  • For me, the next two parts are crucial: first, using the touchstone text, I create a completely correct interactive graphic organizer with my students.  ALL of the information in this organizer is correct and I expect students to copy down exactly what I have down. Now... I will say that we talk about what belongs in the folding page together, but I completely guide them into coming up with all the exact answers that I want! This interactive organizer will serve as their MODEL when they need to complete the same activity with all the other stories that we read in the unit. I need everything to be right so the students have a great model to help them.

  • Next comes the second most crucial part: the constructed response. In this day of standardized testing, constructed responses is where it's at! Seriously, no test will ask students to identify the plot and then organize it into a cute, little folding graphic organizer with a roller coaster graphic! Rather, they will be asked to identify it, and then be given some intense question that asks them to "analyze," or "evaluate," or "explain" some aspect of it. So, with each interactive graphic organizer, there a constructed response question that goes along with it. The goal is to get the kids to complete the organizer, and then use all the information that they put into it when answering the question. Just like I have students put a perfect model of the organizer into their notebook, we also put a perfect answer to a constructed response question (I call them a mentor answer) using our touchstone text. Over the next several weeks, the kids will answer this same question for all the different stories we read, using the mentor answer to help them.

So, that is basically the gist of how I use ISNs. Nothing else goes in them... just notes (or anchor charts if there aren't real notes for the lesson), interactive graphic organizers, and constructed response questions. By the end of the year, the kids have an awesome, organized, and most importantly, useful, reference book of everything we learned in ELA over the year.

Are you using ISNs? How are they working for you? Any useful tips?

Happy teaching!!


  1. Hi Jenna!

    I just stumbled across your blog and I have been reading through it for about 2 hours now. One word...WAHOO!!! I am a relatively new teacher. This is my first year teaching full time and as a homeroom teacher (grade 6). I don't think its coincidence that I came across your blog because what I gather to be your teaching style lines up perfectly with my student centred teaching philosophy. I absolutely LOVE these Interactive Student Notebooks and I am thrilled to try them out with my students this year! I have a few questions: 1) I noticed that you specialized in math and ELA, until this next year (congrats on the move to grade 7). Do you know of teachers using ISNs in the other subject areas? 2) When it comes to assessing the material and concepts in the ISN, what assessments do you tend to use, and do you have these assessments available? (trying not to recreate the wheel too much being that I'm still pretty fresh and have a lot on my plate :) ) 3)Do you have any recommendations for literature to supplement your units? Thank you so much for taking the time to create such an amazing and USEFUL blog. Its teachers like you who really advance the quality of education around the world. I'm thrilled to hear back from you and hopefully talk more. I'm not sure how you respond to comments like this, but just in case its easier to get more directly in touch with me, my email is

    Happy Summer :)

    ~Courtney Cann, grade 6 teacher in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, Canada
    (PS: Congratulation again on your move to grade 7. Without never even having met you, I can tell you that those students are lucky to have you!!!)

    1. Coutney, thanks so much for reading and all your kind words!! I'll answer all your questions the best I can! First, yes, I know of teachers that use ISNs in all subjects! Math (check out, social studies, science, ELA... any subject will work! If you poke around on Pinterest, you will find countless ways to use them! In terms of assessment... I do a quick notebook check once a month that students get a classwork grade for... Other than that, our district uses the Holt Literature Series. All of my assessments come from there. We read about 35-40 short stories, narratives, or poems from the book and give the assessment after each. Also, we give benchmark tests four times per year. It's not very creative, but it is what is required. Finally, I do supplement the Holt stories with several books throughout the year... my favorites that I use every year for middle school are: Maniac Magee; Tuck Everlasting; Bud, Not Buddy; and The Hunger Games.

      Thanks again for reading!! Good luck with your second year of teaching... it gets much easier in year #2 :) Please feel free to contact me again if you need more clarification on something! Enjoy your summer!!


  2. I see that you do the MODEL and put it in the ISN. Then the students do more graphic organizers with other stories. Do they put these in the ISN also, or is that just for the model pages? Thanks

    1. Yup, we put everything in the ISN... all their organizers, notes, and literary analysis go in there :)

  3. Thank you again for all your help! I have already purchased the composition books, print out your huge interactive notebook bundle pages, and put together my teacher copy of the interactive notebook. I've been reading all your blog posts and replies to my questions as well as others and I think I have a gist of how to put this together. From what Im reading, it sounds like you are doing this: hand out notes at start of unit, have students glue in notes to notebook and read/dicuss about them while highlighting. Then you have them color, glue the graphic organizer into the notebook. Once done, then you go over the anchor or main story that you referenced we can get from google to show how to fill out the graphic organizer previously colored and glued. This would be the example graphic organizer filled out correct? Once complete, then hand out several more graphic organizers and students fill out these organizers, one for each story read. Then at the end of those, the students answer the question given to them for all the stories read. I'm hoping I got your process right. I also wanted to ask, do you grade each graphic organizer the students complete after each story to make sure they are on the right track? Since I teach special ed ELA, I feel this would be crucial for me to do since many students have a hard time keeping track of what is right or wrong unless someone shows them and the grade they get guides them in what they are suppose to do. I also felt that may be putting that question the students answer posted under the graphic organizer so students are aware of what will be asked of them when filling out the graphic organizer. I hope I got this all right, but THANK YOU soooooo much for a wonderful product/project. I am so excited to try this out with my students! :)

    1. I think you've got it, Amy!! The more you practice with the ISNs, the more you will get comfortable and find a system that works for you! Best of luck! Let me know if you need anything :)

  4. Quick question, and I apologize if I missed it. How many ISNs does each student have? This year, I had my kids use two, one for ELA and one for Writing/Vocab, plus a folder for homework. But it didn't work well....they needed their ISN to do their homework and then the folder and the ISN was lost to the black hole. I'm trying to decide now what to do for next year.

    1. Hi Megan! Students have one ISN for reading and then a writer's notebook for writing (students usually need two of these per year). For me, neither of the books leave the classroom unless it's an absolute emergency. (The only homework I give is an Article of the Week, so the ISN would not need to go home for that.) Letting kids take these home is just too risky! It's so important that they have these notebooks for class, and if they get lost... ugh!! Hope that helps!

  5. I love the idea of interactive notebooks, but struggle with how much time it takes for the cutting, gluing and coloring. I'm like Megan, teaching a small group of special education students. I'm wondering what your thoughts/philosophies are behind this.

    Also, how in the world do you get through so many short stories and novels? What does your timeframe look like for these?